Sunday, November 30, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

We Americans love our symbols. Sometimes we take it too far, as do Republicans when they pretend their childlike vision of the 1950s ever actually existed, and sometimes we don’t take it far enough, as when we talk about the ideals and values represented by our flag when really we mean the Constitution, and then fail to live up to them when it gets inconvenient. Politically we swing back and forth, symbolically like a pendulum in a clock, but also like a clock we manage somehow to continue to move in some symbolic forward direction like the time marked by the swinging pendulum.

Right now we are collectively experiencing an extreme moment of positive national symbolism wrapped up fairly completely in the person of the incoming president, Barack Hussein Obama. He embodies so many symbolic places because of his background that it is sometimes hard to keep track. He’s a black man by appearance though his father was African meaning his forebears never experienced slavery as did the forebears of most people in America who look like him. But you can’t tell that by looking at him. His mother, however, was white and research has shown that it’s probable the forebears on that side of his family DID own people who look like him. His father was born Muslim and became an apostate. His mother was born Christian and became apostate. He struggled with his spirituality and determined to be Christian, joining a church with a pastor who did enormous good works in his community but also spewed some extreme views on society as a whole on occasion. His name is Arabic. His upbringing was lower middle class for the most part at best yet he earned his way into the best education this country can provide, by acceptance first to Columbia University then to Harvard Law School where he graduated first in his class and was elected president of the Law Review. He made it through on school loans which were finally paid off as his second book became successful, making him and his family millionaires in the process. He spent most of his youth in Hawaii, with a stint early on in Indonesia, but was raised mostly by his white grandmother who came from Kansas. He spent time working some rough streets in Chicago and decided the best way to actually accomplish things for people on those streets and every other street was to engage directly in the political process which affects the quality of life on those streets. He is ambitious and striving in the best sense of the American way. All of this smacks of the best sense of the American way. He certainly seems like the best we have to offer. So far, in addition to the majority who voted for him, and what is sounding like a fair number of those who didn’t, the rest of the world agrees with that assessment as well. The only ones who don’t are the bad guys running al Qaeda. And if one can be judged by the quality of one’s enemies, he’s in pretty good shape there as well.

And he hasn’t done a damn thing yet. It’s all symbolic.

The whole world remains impressed and hopeful with the United States because they can see in us and what we are supposed to strive for the best that humanity can do for itself. Even after the past eight years which seemed more like the 19th century than the 20th much less the 21st, people still risk their lives sneaking through deserts or stuffing into shipping containers to sneak in here, or seek to get their education here, or escape in so many other ways to get here because of what this country symbolizes. Because it is an article of faith that WE THE PEOPLE will somehow manage to continue to work to form a more perfect union.

Very often we forget that it requires work to improve and that even figuring out what to improve isn’t so easy. Of course agreeing how to go about that process is even more difficult but that is the inherent messiness of a system that allows everyone to express and work to promote their opinions.

And this place is a mess right now because we are leaving a period where an important part of our society thought the symbols we strive to embody thought eternal vigilance wasn’t necessary. That it was just an article of faith. We know better now though. We were raised better than that. And we will be better for that as a result. The whole world is depending on us as WE THE PEOPLE to form a more perfect union. It’s time to turn the symbols into reality.


The Sotten Libertine said...

For the people of this Nation to truly appreciate what they have here and why people are willing to risk life and limb to enter this country, one needs to travel beyond these borders to a country less privileged than these United States and visit somewhere beyond the 5 star hotels. Freedom is hard to understand or truly appreciate until it has been taken from you. These last 8 years with the suspension of Habeas Corpus, Extraordinary Rendition, Rules on Interrogation and Guantanamo are just a taste of what some third world citizens would consider a mere inconvenience compared to the nightmares of their daily lives. Let we as Americans be truly thankful for the gifts we receive each day through the auspices of our Constitution and the foresight of our Founding Fathers.

Mike P. said...

Which begs the questions "How? What?" I suspect that part of the answer is voluntarism. This past election season has gotten me thinking a lot about that and whether or not we're all ready to accept a leader who's going to ask us for a little sacrifice for the greater good - especially given the level of commitment Barry has ginned up among his supporters and the depth of the problems that have currently got us taking it up the arse. I'm mighty curious what shape the 21st century New Frontier is going to look like.

At least we'll be spared the prospect of Coco the Monkey telling us to go out and shop, though the sour irony is that over the short term, that might actually be good advice for those of us who have a few decades to recoup our retirement losses.